Kat Ahrens leaned over and asked the woman in the wheelchair, “Would you like to play Yahtzee now?”

The elderly woman answered something inaudible, and 15-year-old Kat nodded her head, understanding the secret language the two shared.

“All right,” she said gently. “I’m going to push you now, OK?”

The woman nodded her frail, gray head and Kat wheeled her through the nursing home corridor to her favorite spot in the dining room, where the game was set up.
In a matter of four days, the pair had developed an unmistakable bond.

Teens find Jesus in community

Kat was one of 30 teens from St. Benedict Parish, Fontana, and St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lake Geneva, who went on a five-day YouthWorks mission trip to Minneapolis, in July. The group joined 38 teens from Christian churches in Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota.

Housed at Elim Baptist Church, the youth split into small groups and went out daily to volunteer. Some went to nursing homes, while others went to day care centers, homeless shelters or community centers. Some did manual work, such as mopping floors or spreading mulch. Others worked directly with people.

“The students get to see what it means to serve,” said Justin Brandman, YouthWorks site director. “They learn to just see Jesus in the community, whether it is a community member at a cookout or a worksite.”

“I like meeting all these people and learning about their backgrounds and experiences, how God has impacted their lives and how he can impact our lives,” said Olivia Briggs, 14.

Likewise, the people in the Minneapolis community appreciate the help.

“Every year, all the residents look forward to the summer when they will have a new group of young people here,” said Mary Ann Maple, volunteer coordinator at Redeemer Residence nursing facility. “It’s such fun to have kids here.”

“They are just beautiful,” resident Ernestine Block said of the six St. Ben’s teens who volunteered at Redeemer. “They are the best girls in town.”

Participants learn life lessons

Although the teens went on the trip to help others, they learned from those they served.

“Coming into this I knew all teenagers, that I, had so many problems,” said Carly Sinclair, 17, who worked with inner-city youth on the trip. “Hearing everyone else’s stories and what they go through every day really helped me.”

When they went to a warehouse that collects supplies for the poor, the teens saw how many people need food.

“So many times people don’t want this food or that because it is too smooshy or too hard. They are so picky about what they eat. But we saw how grateful these people were to receive a piece of bread,” said Fr. Norberto Sandoval, St. Benedict pastor and trip chaperone.

Volunteering at a day care center helped Abby Snudden, 14, plan her future.

“When I get older I would like to go into early childhood education,” she said. “This has been comforting because I see that this really is something I would like to do. It has been very rewarding. It changed me for the better.”

At Redeemer Residence, Gil Maple, 67, confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke 19 years ago, imparted wisdom to the teens.

“I view every day as an opportunity,” he said. “Yesterday is history, and tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift from God, and that’s why they call it the present.”

Priest chaperone listens

“One of the reasons I decided to go on the mission trip is so the kids can have a better relationship with a priest,” said Fr. Sandoval. “Kids can see priests have normal lives. They laugh, they have joy. Kids don’t realize that.”

By working with the youth, Fr. Sandoval also learned what teens need.

“They are thirsty to be heard,” the priest said.

The four YouthWorks staff members, in their early 20s, understood that. They started and ended each day by leading prayers and songs. And they listened.

“I didn’t expect to feel so connected to the people or to God,” said Bailey Wadsworth, 17, who bonded with staffer Shannon Riffle. “We talked about our lives, and they are very similar. She showed me that whatever she has gone through, faith and assurance have been there. If she can, then I can.”

Chris Oliver, 14, agreed.

“I opened up to Justin (Brandman),” he said. “With him being closer to our age and young, I feel better talking to him about the situations I’m going through.”

“It’s been amazing,” staff member Robert Capuano said. “They really connected with us. My absolute favorite thing, aside from talking and praying up in front of these kids, is one-on-one conversation late at night with the guys who come through here. When they come to understand Jesus loves them as an individual, in a close and intimate relationship – that is my absolute favorite.”

Hard to say goodbye

The youth group started planning the trip in August 2012. Throughout the year, they held bake sales, fish fries, stock sales, raffles and an Irish Fest.

It was all worth it, according to Beth Peyer, faith formation director at St. Ben’s.

“The kids gained their God connection,” Peyer said. “They went there assuming they were going to help others, but they got more out of the God element than they expected. For me, the best part of the trip was when the kids realized that God is there for them, when the kids finally had that loving feeling. I don’t know how to describe it, but they got it.”

For the teens, the toughest part of the trip was saying goodbye to those they served.

“It wasn’t what I expected,” said Nick Robison, 14, who worked with children in Minneapolis. “There is a kid named Romeo; he is like a brother. When I said, ‘bye,’ I said I wasn’t going to cry. But he started wailing and then I started crying. I think I became a better person.”

When Abby Snudden was leaving Grandma’s House Day Care Center, she announced, “I have to go.”

One of the children, Ames, 3, looked up to her with his big eyes and said, “I’m sad.”

Snudden asked, “Why?”

“Because I’m going to miss you,” the toddler answered.

Plans in place for next year

Peyer is already making plans for next year’s trip.

“My ultimate goal would be for the kids to eventually see that the world they are searching for is right here where they live,” she said. “But I think they have to go outside themselves first to see that the people there are same as they are right here. I want them to come around full circle.”

Some have already come around the bend.

“Everything has changed now. It’s crazy because normally you do whatever you want, and now I see that there are people who need help,” said Mikaela Lagerhausen, 17. “I really liked being at the nursing house. There’s one by where I live that I could walk to, but I know I wouldn’t have otherwise. Now I will stop in there and say hi to people.”